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Nuruddin Farah: Getting kids back to school in Somalia

A child’s right to education is as sacrosanct as a child’s need for water, food, shelter and peace. But tragically the education system, like much of Somalia, has been virtually destroyed over the last 20 years by the terrible, senseless civil war. Now only four out of every 10 children go to school – one of the lowest enrollment rates anywhere in the world. And the numbers are far lower for girls, who are often kept at home for housework or pushed into an early marriage.

I travelled home to Somalia back in 1996, which was after only five years of civil war and already the schools had stopped functioning. At that time, I told anyone who would listen that education needed a kick-start and in the intervening years the situation has only got worse and worse. Students attend religious schools learning Arabic rather than Somali, and secondary education has been almost wiped out. So, teenage boys were attracted to the militias, like al-Shabab and other militant groups, for the food and money they provided.

When I was a young child, we lived in the Somali-speaking part of Ethiopia. There were no decent schools at that time there either. So my father took it upon himself to travel around, recruit a few teachers and personally pay them. I got to go to school – and as I was nearing the end of my primary education, as luck would have it, some missionaries set up a secondary school.

I clearly remember after a week at the secondary school thinking that this was a different world from the one in which my parents and my grandparents had grown up. This was because I could see myself through the eyes of the world to which I was being introduced. Through education, through books, I was given the chance to expand my universe far above that of my classmates and my parents. And this was all due to the exposure that I had to other languages, other cultures and other world views.

As a child I was able to place myself in the shoes of a child growing up in England or in America and my ambitions flew far ahead of my contemporaries in the same town simply because they didn’t have an education. The chances I had in the classroom quite simply made me the person I am today and gave me the opportunity to make a success of my life.

(Pic: Unicef)
(Pic: Unicef)

I believe that if you give any child the opportunity to read and study they will use the opportunity to take themselves – even if only in their imaginations – out of misery, out of civil war and out of strife to a higher plane.

Literacy also changes an entire community, an entire nation. It is not only schooling that is important, it is the idea of training the mind that becomes important. A child who attends school regularly behaves differently from one who is a truant and is more likely to be self-destructive and more likely to break rules.

It is discipline, patience and continuous learning that educates the mind, that makes a person produce peace: first of all within themselves and then moving that peace outside of themselves and sharing it with many, many others.

A peace process is therefore just another form of schooling – training adults’ minds to accept that there is no alternative to peace. And above all, that is what Somalia needs right now.

Nuruddin Farah is a prominent Somali novelist. He was awarded the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. 

On September 8 2013 – World Literacy Day – Somali education authorities with support from Unicef launched the Go 2 School initiative, an ambitious three-year campaign that plans to provide one million children and youth in Somalia with access to quality education. Farah and Beninois musician Angelique Kidjo have urged support for it.

Creches as cash cows in Kenya

It used to be a common joke in Nairobi’s bars, salons and taxis: the fastest way to get rich in Kenya is to start your own church. Now the joke has matured – the surest way to make a quick buck (and dodge taxes) in Kenya today is to open your own creche.

Infant day care schools are springing up at such an alarming rate in Nairobi that they may soon outnumber bars and butcheries in some townships.

During colonial days and many years after Kenya’s independence, it was not common to find black African kids attending preschools in droves.  Africans – “natives” – were expected to jump straight into primary school with over-size uniform shorts, rusty brogues and peak caps. The expectation was for one to attain an education fit for the colonial economy (bricklayers, trolley pushers, coffee graders, veranda painters). Creche was a fancy foreign concept reserved for kids of local bankers, lawyers, European expatriates, diplomats and cushy industrialists who had a fond nostalgia of daycare centres back home in London, Berlin or Paris.

This is no more. With the tie-down of education standards and generally relaxed rules, anyone can now open a creche in Kenya without much financial investment. The most sensible requirement is to have to have kids nearby, lots of them. Hence, creches are flourishing in Kibera slum, farming settlements and cluster towns.

Kids play in a shipping container that's been turned into a creche in Nairobi. (Pic: David Gianti)
Kids play in a shipping container that’s been turned into a creche in Kibera slum, Nairobi. (Pic: David Gianti)

A proper classroom is far from being a requirement. Livestock sheds, ancient grinding rooms and derelict garages are being torn down in Nairobi to make way for new creches. Infant meals or proper desks are not necessary either. With stressed and short-on-time parents willing to cough up to 3066 Kenyan shillings ($US35) per child per month, there’s no shortage of cheeky entrepreneurs willing to “renovate” their homes into creches.

“Mine is a creche in the morning, paint room in the afternoon and a bar at night,” says Hakem, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who has 30 kids enrolled at his Thanks Tidings Day Centre in Kibera.

“I retire my furniture, sofas, television, table suites to a kitchen during the day to make way for kids attending creche in my house,” says Sofia Wanari, another creche owner. “At night it’s a proper home again when the kids are gone.” When pressed about how much of revenue she makes, she smiles. “The earnings are pretty juicy.  In a month where all parents pay fees I collect about 105 010 Kenyan shillings ( $1200).”

Unlike registered and affluent creches in leafy parts of Nairobi, many springing up in the townships have little regulation. Teachers are not trained or qualified – that’ll be expecting way too much. With steely will, a former kitchen maid, a tobacco clerk or a retired bus driver can turn into a creche school teacher anytime. Curriculums or timetables are neither designed nor followed. One only needs to spend the whole day yelling at infants, minding their general silly tantrums, enforcing sleep times, rehearsing Mau-Mau-era songs and chaperoning them when they stray close to a broken pool or busy road. Not that many parents care: urban Kenyans are tied down in booming factory jobs, office chores and green fruit market stalls, so anyone willing to take care of kids during the day readily finds willing parents.

It’s not entirely unsurprising to see a burger or pizza shop in the evening being dusted and scrubbed to make way for a creche in the morning.  An advert on the wall will read: “Sally’s pizza 5pm to 8pm;  infant preschool 8am to 3pm”.

A suitable, safe location is a not a priority for creche owners. It’s not unthinkable to see a creche opening up next to a strip bar, a gamblers’ saloon or a railway crossing. “Greedy entrepreneurs don’t necessarily care about kids’ safety.  It’s a mighty shame one way or another,” explained Michelle Gaziki, a special needs education facilitator with the Kenyan education ministry.

Of course these creche owners live with a permanent fear of authorities who often inspect creches for health facilities, licences and building safety. Like in any part of East Africa, an under-the-table ‘gift’ to a government inspector will help take care of any problems.

However, for entrepreneurs like Wanari this business is a win-win scenario. “No one wants to be saddled with a weeing infant during the day when there are jobs to chase in the economy. Those who say unlicensed creches are menacing are simply grumpy middle-class Kenyans used to seeing their children in gated preschools years before primary. It has changed.”

David Gianti is a Kenyan student studying towards a master’s degree in education at the University of Nairobi. Connect with him on Facebook.

The blacksmith who turns Liberia’s war arms into art

German blacksmith Manfred Zbrzezny and his apprentices hammer, file and weld in a steamy, dark workshop on the outskirts of the Liberian capital Monrovia, surrounded by parts for AK-47s, bazookas and other deadly arms.

In another lifetime, these weapons were the cause of untold misery in a nation scarred by ruinous back-to-back civil wars, but now they are being transformed into symbols of hope for Liberians.

Since 2007, Zbrzezny and his team at Fyrkuna Metalworks have been gathering parts of weapons decommissioned during the disarmament process after the conflict ended ten years ago to turn them into ornate flowerpots, lamps, furniture and sculptures.

Seahorse. (Pic: Fyrkuna Gallery)
Seahorse. (Pic: Fyrkuna Metalworks)

“It was strange from the beginning to work with weapons or instruments of destruction and suffering. The first two years I was working on this it remained very strange to me,” Zbrzezny said.

“When I had a piece in my hands I would think about what was happening now to the perpetrators who used these weapons, and what was happening to the victims, and I would put the piece down to go drink a cup of coffee because it was a little bit oppressive.”

Today, as he holds each weapon part, Zbrzezny is able to focus on its potential for bringing healing to the people of Liberia.

Mobile phone holders. (Pic: Fyrkuna Gallery)
Mobile phone holders. (Pic: Fyrkuna Metalworks)

“I do some thinking on how to transform it into something different, how to transform something that was destructive into something constructive, how to transform something negative into something positive,” he said.

Deep psychological and physical wounds remain in Liberia after two civil wars which ran from 1989 to 2003, leaving a quarter of a million people dead.

Numerous rebel factions raped, maimed and killed, some making use of drugged-up child soldiers, and deep ethnic rivalries and bitterness remain across the west African nation of four million people.

Zbrzezny, who had worked as a blacksmith in Italy and Germany, came to Liberia in 2005, two years after the end of the rebel siege of Monrovia that brought a fragile peace to the west African nation.

He failed initially to make money out of his trade until in 2007 he was approached by the owners of a riverside restaurant who asked if he could put his skills to transforming the parts of old weapons into a marine-themed banister.

The project was such a success that he began making other pieces for the restaurant with parts from rocket-propelled grenade launchers and sub-machinegun barrels — then still commonplace in Monrovia.

He began collecting weapons parts from a German charity involved in Liberia’s disarmament process and made a business out of transforming instruments of war into candle stands, bookends, bells and bottle openers.

“So it was by chance that I got into this. Now I employ five young Liberians who are learning the trade at the same time,” said Zbrzezny, who calls his work “Arms into Art”.

Table lamp. (Pic: Fyrkuna Gallery)
Table lamp. (Pic: Fyrkuna Metalworks)

One of Zbrzezny’s most ambitious projects was a “peace tree” fashioned in 2011 from weapons parts on Providence Island, an iconic part of Monrovia where freed slaves from the United States landed in the 19th century to found the new republic.

Momodu Paasawee, the caretaker for the area where the tree is exhibited, said it had become a symbol for reconciliation in post-war Liberia.

“Seeing this tree reminds Liberians that the war has ended and never should we return to war… Tourists and Liberian students come here to see the tree,” he said.

“Sometimes people come here believing that this is a real tree but I have to tell them that this is a peace tree made out of the barrels of guns.”

Zbrzezny, who is married to a Liberian woman who is expecting their second child, says most of his customers are expats, with few Liberians buying his wares.

Keen to expand his work, Zbrzezny has been trying to convince the United Nations mission in Liberia to donate its weapons scrap.

 Leaving the past behind
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to probe war crimes and rights abuses between 1979 and 2003, and particularly during the brutal conflicts that raged in 1989-96 and 1999-2003.

The commission said a war crimes court should be set up to prosecute eight ex-warlords for alleged crimes against humanity but the government is yet to implement the recommendations.

A decade after the war, no money has been made available and the only Liberian to face trial is Charles Taylor, and that was for his role in neighbouring Sierra Leone’s civil conflict, not that in his own country.

The former leader is appealing a 50-year prison sentence handed down in May last year for supporting rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for “blood diamonds” during a civil war that claimed 120,000 lives between 1991 and 2001.

Meanwhile a generation of traumatised children who witnessed untold horrors in Liberia are now struggling to come to terms with their country’s violent past as adults.

Emmanuel Freeman (28), one of Zbrzezny’s apprentices, was a child during most of the conflict and saw both of his parents slain.

“They were killed by guns. These are the same guns I am transforming today into something else,” he said. “I am excited, happy and very pleased to do that.”

But “sometimes when I am holding the scraps it reminds me what I saw during the war”, he added.

Zoom Dosso for AFP

Kenya: A smartphone that’s a sight for sore eyes

Simon Kamau (26) has been in almost constant pain since he was a playful three-year-old and accidentally pierced his eye with a sharp object, but smartphone technology now offers hope.

His family live in an impoverished part of rural Naivasha in Kenya’s Rift Valley region and could not afford the 80km journey to the nearest specialist hospital, leaving the young Kamau blind in one eye ever since.

Today, 23 years later, Kamau has a chance to better his quality of life thanks to a team of doctors from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine armed with an innovative, low cost, smartphone solution.

“Kenya was a natural test location,” the project’s team leader, Dr Andrew Bastawrous, told AFP. “For a country with a population of more than 40 million, there are only 86 qualified eye doctors, 43 of whom are operating in the capital Nairobi.”

The equipment used in the study, which has been running for five years and is now in its final stages, is a smartphone with an add-on lens that scans the retina, plus an application to record the data.

A technician scans the eye of Mary Wambui at her home with a smartphone application as she takes part in an ophthalmological study and examination. (Pic: AFP)
A technician scans the eye of Mary Wambui with a smartphone application as she takes part in an ophthalmological study and examination. (Pic: AFP)

The technology is deceptively simple to use and relatively cheap: each ‘Eye-Phone’, as Bastawrous likes to call his invention, costs a few hundred euros, compared to a professional ophthalmoscope that costs tens of thousands of euros and weighs in at around 130kg.

Bastawrous said he hopes the ‘Nakuru Eye Disease Cohort Study’, which has done the rounds of 5 000 Kenyan patients, will one day revolutionise access to eye treatment for millions of low-income Africans who are suffering from eye disease and blindness.

With 80% of the cases of blindness considered curable or preventable, the potential impact is huge.

Data from each patient is uploaded to a team of specialists, who can come up with a diagnosis and advise on follow-up treatment. The results are also compared to tests taken with professional equipment to check the smartphone is a viable alternative.

Bastawrous says his ‘Eye-Phone’ has proved its worth, and can easily and accurately diagnose ailments including glaucoma, cataracts, myopia and long-sightedness.

Treatments range from prescription glasses and eye drops to complex surgery that is conducted once every two weeks at a hospital in Nakuru, the nearest big town. So far, up to 200 of the 5 000 people involved in the study have had surgery to correct various eye ailments.

Men have their eyes tested  by technicians from the 'Nakuru Eye Disease Cohort Study'. (Pic: AFP)
Men have their eyes tested by technicians from the ‘Nakuru Eye Disease Cohort Study’. (Pic: AFP)

Kamau is among those expecting to receive surgery on his blind eye. While doctors say he is unlikely to recover his full vision because the injury was so long ago, they can at least stop the pain and swelling caused by the additional strain on his functioning eye.

“I can hardly do manual work around the farm. Once the sun shines, my eyes water and I feel a lot of pain,” said Kamau, who lives on a small farm with six family members.

Neighbour Mary Wambui (50) has had eye problems for 36 years but gave up on finding treatment because existing medical care was far too expensive. Instead, she settled for home remedies like placing a cold wet cloth over her eyes when the pain became unbearable.

“I was treated at the Kijabe Mission hospital but the follow-up visits became too expensive. I had to pay bus fares and then queue in the waiting room for the whole day, and then go back home without seeing a doctor,” she recalled.

She said Bastawrous’ project, in which the tests were carried out at her home, was a welcome relief.

“I do not like the feel of hospitals. Their process is long, laborious and costly but with this phone, I got to know of my diagnosis with just a click,” she said.

Bastawrous says the success of the smartphone meant it could soon be replicated in other poor areas of Kenya. He said the arid Turkana area, one of Kenya’s poorest regions, was next on the list.

Irene Wairimu for AFP


Black laughter and suing Pontius Pilate

Black people’s relationship to laughter fascinates me. As a friend recently pondered, where does one begin understanding a Facebook status update that says: “That awkward moment when your mother dies”? Or how does one make sense of the Kenyan lawyer, Dola Indidis, who took such strong exception to the unfair prosecution of Jesus Christ that he decided to sue Pontius Pilate, Emperor Tiberius and King Herod at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in July 2013?

The obviousness of this move astonished me. Indeed, why hadn’t anyone thought of this before? Never mind that accused number one, Pontius Pilate is long dead and probably long forgiven by Christ— as are Emperor Tiberius and King Herod. Never mind, too, that not-so-small detail that the Christian in me is daily reminded of by my name: God authorised His son’s ‘unfair’ trial as an act of divine grace. Despite this — or as we say in Kenya, ‘irregardless’ – Indidis took serious umbrage to what he calls the abuse of Jesus’s human rights. So, he is suing Pilate for judicial misconduct, abuse of office, bias and prejudice. He is also suing the Republic of Rome and the State of Israel for their complicity in Jesus’s malicious prosecution. His aim? To have the trial of Jesus declared null and void; following a similar precedent in the nullification of the unfair trial of Joan of Arc. As a Christian, this is the part where I get stuck. It is all well that Joan of Arc got posthumous justice, but what would it mean for Jesus’s trial and crucifixion to be declared null and void?

In all honesty,  Indidis’s court case cracked my ribs when I first read it. But absurd as it sounds, anyone who has read Toni Morrison will know that black people’s seeming absurdities are not always a light affair. So, when you meet grown men and women bearing names like Tea-Cake and Baby Suggs, it is not funny in a Nandos-advert kind of way. It is funny in that funny-sad way that explains how Louis Armstrong‘s fans could fondly call him Satchmo [Satchel mouth] as a loving nickname.

Come to think of it, it is in naming that this contradictory blend of hurt and affirmation plays out most explicitly. My personal favorite is Pilate Dead, a woman in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Her family carries the unfortunate surname — Dead — courtesy of a drunk soldier who captured her father’s details wrongly for his identification papers. When he explained that he was from Macon and his father was dead, the soldier entered these details under ‘name’ and ‘surname’ respectively. And that is how many generations of the family came to be, well, Dead. But Pilate’s first name is an in-house job. The same father inaugurated a family tradition of naming children by opening a Bible and pointing a finger at a random page. Wherever a finger fell, that would be the child’s name. This tradition is strictly observed in the family, generations later, despite literacy. So, when her father’s finger landed on the unfortunate spot in the Bible, the name stuck, despite the midwife’s protests about saddling a new born baby girl with not just a man’s name, but a “Christ-killing man’s name.” Thanks to this tradition, Pilate has nieces named Magdalene Dead and First Corinthians Dead.

Pilate Dead and Satchmo’s names are a reminder that black people’s laughter embraces the grey ambiguities of life, in full recognition of the fact that life and death are next-door neighbours. So are pain and laughter. This sensibility was brought to me recently in a most bizarre way. It was a Sunday mid-morning, and I was looking at children’s clothes in a retail store at my local mall. It is generally a quiet shopping time, which I like. You have space for your thoughts, without bumping into everyone else’s thoughts in the aisles. Even the music is played at a lower volume. So, on this Sunday, as I looked at little boys’ shirts, the store was quiet enough for me to hear four attendants’ voices from different parts of the shop, having a loud lighthearted conversation, in Afrikaans, filled with relaxed laughter. They all seemed deeply amused at an inside joke. My entire Afrikaans is a few phrases picked up from 7de Laan and the inevitable swear words one tends to learn when one encounters a new language, so I had no clue what the joke was. But one phrase kept coming up, followed by long peals of laughter: “Easter bunny”. After the fifth Easter bunny, I looked around the shop, slightly confused: had this store decided to have a second Easter marketing campaign in the middle of August? But there was not a single ‘Easter-branded’ item or poster in sight.

I was still puzzled at this when I got to the pay counter, and one of the assistants called out to one of the colleagues they had been conversing with, to come and serve me. As Alex walked over to the counter laughing, he shouted, “Easter bunny!” to his colleague, who responded with another “Easter bunny”. And another laugh. It was when he came in my line of vision that I finally figured what the word was, and felt even more confused. It wasn’t Easter bunny. It was isitabane, laced with an Afrikaans accent.

I was speechless. To my knowledge, this is a derogatory, homophobic word. And Alex was clearly a gay black man. Many thoughts collided in my mind as Alex processed my purchase: When did this word become publicly sayable? Laughable? Was I witnessing the playful taming of a violent word? The softening of a hard, damaging label? Was this the same as the reclaiming of the word ‘queer’? Or was it normalising a hurtful word? Did the foreign languageness of the word make it easier for the Afrikaans speakers to play with it, in much the same way swear words in your mother tongue sound much dirtier than in English? Reading Siyanda Mohutsiwa’s concern about similar taming of hurtful racial and gendered words a few weeks ago, I was reminded of this conversation.

As I left the store this Sunday, wrestling with what this lighthearted banter between colleagues meant, I remembered another even more random conversation a few years earlier between two young ladies at Wits University:

“He says he will love you forever? Aawwww, chommie! That’s so romantic!”

“Ja, but forever is a long time, hey?” the friend responded, in a matter-of-fact tone.

Something about this conversation just killed me dead, as they say in Nollywood. It was both funny and profound. You see, forever IS a long time. This is the spirit in which Pilate Dead walks around with that name in Morrison’s novel. This is probably the same spirit with which a gay black man would be laughing at “Easter bunny”. It is the same logic behind Indidis’s pursuit of justice for Jesus. See, forever IS a long time to promise to love someone, but two thousand years isn’t too late to get justice for God’s son. This is that awkward moment when conventionalised logic gives way to unconventional logic.

Grace A. Musila is a Kenyan who studied in South Africa.